Everything you need to know before visiting Laos, that underrated country you didn’t know you’ve always wanted to visit.
Surrounded by Thailand, Myanmar, China, Vietnam, and Cambodia, landlocked Laos is often overlooked or skipped through en route to bigger fish/temples. But with its laid-back capital of Vientiane, the mysterious Plain of Jars, and the magical Kong Lor Cave, Laos really does merit an actual visit, not just a pass through. We’ve rounded up a few things you should know before you go to make the most of your time.
“Happy” Meals Come With Drugs, Not Toys
Menus in Laos and Cambodia openly advertise “happy tea,” “happy pizza,” “happy mojitos,” and “happy shakes,” and you should know that this does not necessarily mean there’s a jolly chef in the kitchen whipping up your order. Well, hopefully that chef is happy and living their best life but the “happy” in your order refers to drugs. Particularly in Vang Vieng, anything “happy” has marijuana or psychedelic mushrooms in it. If a side of marijuana is your thing, feel free to take to your chances, but you should also know that it is illegal here. Confusing right? Illegal but openly advertised and available. It’s like the garden of Eden! So be careful. You’ve seen Brokedown Palace, right? Where two Americans are imprisoned for life in Thailand for alleged drug smuggling? Okay, not exactly the same thing but still, drugs + Southeast Asia = maybe not the best idea … Just a thought (and no, your mom didn’t put me up to this), but maybe avoid the “happy” meals and just settle for being naturally happy with the general bounty of nature and beauty?
You’ll Feel Like You’re In France
Like several other countries in Southeast Asia, Laos came under French rule during the colonial era and while the French government gave up its protectorate status in 1946, visitors can still find obvious traces of this European legacy throughout Luang Prabang, Laos’ most vibrant and busy city. From colonial-era architecture to crusty, dreamy baguettes to rival any Paris bakery, Luang Prabang is like an interesting Southeast Asian France.
The Country Is Laos, The People Are Lao
The whole Laos-Lao thing can be a little confusing, especially because so many people get this wrong. In short, the country is Laos (rhymes with blouse; pronounce the ‘s’) and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! That said, if you want to say Lao (rhymes with cow) you can refer to this country by its alternate name, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Drop the ‘s’ and say “Lao” when you refer to the people. So, one time altogether: the Lao people live in Laos. Got it?
Transportation Is Cheap and Cheerful…but Slow
Transportation in Laos requires one prerequisite: patience. It’s quite cheap, the views out the window will be fantastic, and you’ll get there…but it will take a while. Looking at the map you’d think everything is a mere few hours away and in theory, you’d be correct. However, Laos’ craggy and mountainous terrains and poor infrastructure make this one tough country to navigate. Six-hour bus rides can become nine-hour rides, and for about five of those hours, you may have to hang on to the seat in front of you to keep yourself from bouncing around (bring Dramamine if you get car sick).
Over the years, there have been plans and aborted attempts to build a railroad system in Laos but for now, you cannot get around by train. Also, flights within Laos are scarce and you’ll pay dearly compared to some of the much cheaper flights that get you much further in Southeast Asia. So, buses and minivans are essentially your only means of transportation unless you’re very confident on a motorbike and have buns of steel to withstand the rocky roads.
Motorbiking 101 in Laos
The picturesque Tha Khaek Loop is a hugely popular five-day biking route which takes you through remote villages and around karst mountains and it’s deservedly on the bucket list of many travelers but there are a few things you should know before you rent a bike. First off, the quality of bikes varies from shop to shop so you’ll want to take your time to really inspect the bike before you hit the road (which will be a mix of paved and unpaved). You need to have a license, even if the shop doesn’t ask for one, or the insurance won’t cover anything. Speaking of insurance, make sure your travel insurance covers motorbike travel on your trip. Don’t try to cross a border into Thailand, Vietnam, or Cambodia with a rented bike; it’s illegal. Finally, be sure to get a helmet with your bike: the roads, and Lao drivers on the roads, can be extremely dangerous.
Watch Your Step
As you travel around beautiful Laos it is easy to forget its reputation as the most heavily bombed country in the world. The landscape is beautiful, there are no bombs falling from the sky, and the cities and towns look like most other Southeast Asian towns. But once you head to Xieng Khouang Province, perhaps to visit the Plain of Jars (a mysterious must) you will start to notice the old bomb metal, locals with missing limbs, and even souvenirs made from sharp metal. From 1964-1973 the United States dropped over 260 million cluster bombs–about 2.5 million tons of munitions–on Laos over the course of 580,000 bombing missions. More than 34,000 people have been killed or injured by cluster munitions since the bombing ceased in 1973, with close to 300 new casualties in Laos every year. Xieng Khouang is the most affected province. While at the Plain of Jars, visit the Mines Advisory Group (MAG ) center for more history and information on efforts to clear the countryside. Landmines have been cleared from the more touristy areas but you really do not want to wander too much off the beaten track here–or exercise caution if you do.
The local currency in Laos is Lao kip and you’ll want to be sure you are carrying it on you as you leave Laos’ major cities. Banks and ATMs are less available than in neighboring countries and while you might be lucky enough to find a place willing to do a currency exchange, you can assume the exchange rates will not be fair. Just plan to carry cash to avoid disappointment and hunger! Speaking of cash, there are lots and lots of zeros to deal with and you can get a 10,000 note mixed up with 100,000 note very easily. Familiarize yourself with your notes early and double and triple check your change with every exchange of cash.
You’ll Need a Visa To Cross The Border
Whether you’re coming from Vietnam, Cambodia, or Thailand, there are several points of entry and the crossing is generally pretty straightforward. You can purchase your visa at the airport or right at the border. Plan to pay in USD (around $40) as the exchange rates work out to be a bit cheaper this way (Thai Baht is also accepted but it turns out to be a bit more expensive.) You will need a passport-size photo for your Laos visa. If you don’t bring one, you’ll be charged an extra few bucks for a copy of your passport photo. Oh and be sure you have pages left in your passport: The visa sticker for visas issued from an embassy is a full page.
INSIDER TIPDon’t be alarmed if the officers take your passport and disappear for a few minutes–it’s a normal part of the process. Just be sure you get the right passport back or you might be living every traveler’s worst nightmare in Southeast Asia!
Say No to Animal Interactions
While it may be your life goal to get selfies with a tiger and to ride an elephant through the jungle, the reality is, the animals are being used and abused for your enjoyment. The sad and horrible truth is that baby elephants “have the spirit” beaten out of them so they become submissive to their mahouts (the trainer). Then, these gentle beasts live a life in chains for most of the day and taken “for a walk” when tourists want a ride. Tigers are heavily drugged so tourists can sit next to them and have their pictures taken.
There are ethical and responsible sanctuaries where the animals’ welfare and health is a priority. Visit the Elephant Conservation Center in Laos if you want to see these beautiful creatures with a clear conscience.
Give Respect and Alms
Laos is a Buddhist country and you should respect their ways as you visit. Dress is modest everywhere, especially in temples. When visiting temples, have your shoulders and knees covered. You must always take your shoes off before entering a home or temple. Sometimes, even guesthouses and quaint cafes may require you to remove your shoes. Be aware of signage or a pile shoes at the front of the doorway and just do as the locals do.
Speaking of locals, something you may witness is the giving of alms to monks. This is an ancient and sacred tradition that is still observed today. If you’d like to participate in this daily ritual make sure to do it with the utmost respect. Dress modestly, provide the correct food (usually local and fresh market rice), don’t disrupt the ceremony, and definitely don’t get in their faces with your camera. If you’re very curious and aren’t sure what to do, stand out of the way and observe from afar. This isn’t really an attraction and there are already too many people being “that” tourist. Tread carefully with this revered practice as there are fears that outside interference is diluting its sacredness.